Bill Hass on Baseball:Sweep makes fireworks more dazzling

Sweep makes fireworks more dazzling
from Bill Hass, with Bill on Baseball, at….

The post-game fireworks looked a lot brighter for the Hoppers Saturday night.

Some of them saw the extravaganza after the game on July 4, but it was more watching than enjoying after they lost an 11–10 game they knew they should have won.

Saturday, though, they sprinted out of the tunnel to enjoy the show after sweeping a pair of games against Lakewood. They started by finishing Friday’s suspended game and winning it 9–4. Then they won a tight game 2–1 that required an extra inning.

“I did watch after the July 4 game,” said Mason Martin, “but it was more to clear my mind and chill out. It was a lot more enjoyable tonight.”

Martin had a home run in each game to push his season totals to 23 homers and 83 RBIs. The one in the first game was a prodigious two-run shot to right field that cleared the end of the arch above the scoreboard and hit the new construction across Eugene Street. That one moved the score from 7–4 to 9–4 and put things out of reach.

“That’s one of the best swings I’ve had all year,” he said. “It’s hard to explain. It feels so clean and so smooth, it’s like a hot knife through warm butter.”

His homer in the second game was more crucial. With the Hoppers down 1–0 in the sixth inning, Martin launched a long drive to left field that tied the game.

“I’ve made huge strides going to left field,” he said. “Last year it was rare when I hit anything that way. Now I can hit it to left with authority. It opens up another part of my game because pitchers aren’t sure whether to pitch me inside or outside.”

The score was still tied after seven innings. In the minor leagues, all extra innings begin with a runner on second base. Greensboro reliever Will Gardner kept the BlueClaws off the board, aided by a spectacular diving catch by left fielder Justin Harrer and a nice running catch by second baseman Kyle Mottice.

The bottom of the eighth began with Zack Kone on second base. After Zac Susi popped out, Mottice singled up the middle. Manager Miguel Perez waved Kone home from the third base coaches box. The low throw from center fielder Malvin Matos skipped off the mound and Kone scored to end the game.

For Mottice, it was business as usual. He had two of the Hoppers’ four hits in the second game, leaving him with a batting average of .389.

“I was sitting on a fastball and got a curve, but I still put a good swing on it,” Mottice said. “If the ball is in my zone, it doesn’t matter what kind of pitch it is. I try to keep the ball in the center of the field.”

Hitting coach Chris Petersen likes Mottice’s approach at the plate.

“He’s a very tough out,” Petersen said. “He gives no ground and doesn’t shy away from anything, which makes it tough on a pitcher. He has been working on staying through the ball and hitting it up the middle and it paid off.”

The evening, in essence, was a doubleheader, except that the Hoppers began with a 5–2 lead in the first game. That was courtesy of a grand slam hit by Connor Kaiser on Friday night before lightning and heavy rain forced the game to be suspended after two innings.

Conner Loeprich started Saturday on the mound, technically in relief of Luis Nova from Friday. Loeprich was terrific through four innings, striking out 10 and extracting himself from a bases-loaded jam at one point. He faltered a bit in his fifth inning, giving up two runs, but earned his third win. He has made spot starts, pitched in long relief and short relief this season.

“He’s been the glue for us with his versatility,” said pitching coach Stan Kyles. “You know you can depend on him. Tonight he was getting a lot of strikeouts with his slider, but he was setting that up with his fastball command and getting ahead in the count.”

John O’Reilly pitched two shutout innings in relief of Loeprich and earned his third save.

In the second game, Steven Jennings gave the Hoppers one of his best efforts. He shut out the BlueClaws for four innings and made one mistake in the fifth inning, which Nick Matera hit for a solo home run.

Jennings’ counterpart, Francisco Morales, stymied the Hoppers through five scoreless innings, allowing just two hits. Reliever Andrew Schultz took over in the sixth and surrendered the home by Martin that tied the game.

Mark Potter shut out the Hoppers in the seventh to force the extra inning but wound up with the loss when Mottice drove in Kone. Gardner, who pitched three perfect innings in relief of Jennings, picked up his third win.

After Thursday’s crushing loss, Perez said he believed his team would be fine?—?and he was right.

“This team never quits,” he said. “When (Lakewood) scored, we found ways to respond.”

The teams wrap up the series with a game at 4 p.m. Sunday. It will be their 23rd, and final, meeting this season. The Hoppers lead the series 16–6. Osvaldo Bido will start for the Hoppers, seeking his 11th win.